Saturday, May 28, 2011

Eternal Life Lived With God

29 May 2011/Easter 6A - John 14:15-21/Acts 17:22-31
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Saint Peter’s at Ellicott Mills, Maryland

“The God who made the world and everything in it, he who is Lord of heaven and earth, does not live in shrines made by human hands, nor is he served by human hands, as though he needed anything, since he himself gives to all mortals life and breath and all things.”

Jesus talks about the gift of the Holy Spirit. Paul talks about God. We speak of God, Jesus and Holy Spirit as being One. We speak of God, Jesus and Holy Spirit as “Being,” capital “B”. Just where does God as Trinity live and move and have their being? What do we think of when we think of eternity? Or, eternal life? We tend to think of eternity and eternal life as more of a place than as Time. Similarly we tend to think of God’s existence, even as Father, Son and Holy Spirit, to exist in Space rather than Time, in nature rather than history, as if God is a thing, not a Spirit.

Appealing to the primitive pagan mind, Paul knows that we often find it hard to realize an idea without an image in the realm of Space: As if where there is no image there is no God. So God is thought to live in shrines. We like to think we are beyond all of this, but we revere sacred images, sacred mountains, sacred monuments, sacred buildings, sacred places. Not only in religion, but all nations pay homage to banners and flags, national shrines, monuments to heroes, kings and presidents. We continue to build them year after year.

Desecration of these things of Space is considered sacrilege. Until the shrine, the banner, the place, religious or national, becomes so important that the idea beneath it gets lost and consigned to oblivion. Thus, the memorial object or place becomes an aid to amnesia. We forget why we revere the image, we forget why we are here. For instance, few people today even know what Memorial Day memorializes – begun as a day to remember those who died in the Civil War it has come to be a day to remember all who have died in all of our nation’s wars, but it has been reduced largely to “a day off” or a time to barbeque.

As to religious experience, someone has a spiritual experience at a particular well. That person leaves a stone there to remember the experience. Others go to the well, have similar experiences and also leave a stone there, until one day, a grand Cathedral is built over and around the place of the well. Now people come to worship at the Cathedral because they can no longer see the well, and no one is left to remember the experiences others had at the well. People now only revere the Cathedral, forgetting why people used to come there in the first place.

This problem of identifying God in Space and Things is called idolatry by the Bible. Idolatry is just about the only sin with which the Bible is concerned. Idolatry and Covetousness concern the Bible mightily. Idolatry is when we begin to identify reality with things in Space, until even God becomes thought of more as a thing then as Spirit and Being. Covetousness is when we want things – any things, all things – more than we want God. We come to believe only in what we can see and have. So we commit our lives to three verbs: to want , to have and to do, forgetting that these three verbs only have significance in, and are transcended by, the verb “to be.” Being must precede wanting, having and doing.

So we pursue a life of accumulating things – of wanting, having and doing things. Despite the fact that it is not a thing that lends significance to a moment, but rather a moment that lends significance to a thing, a person or a place. There is a Realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue but to be in accord. And, as it turns out, the Bible pays attention to generations and events more than countries and things; it is more concerned with history than with geography. The Bible is more concerned with Time than with Space.

As we move through the Great Fifty Days of Easter toward the season of Pentecost, we might take note of perhaps the most significant revolution in the history of religions: Israel transformed agricultural festivals into commemorations of historic events. That is, the religious festival that celebrated the spring harvest became Passover, celebrating the escape from slavery in Egypt to freedom in a new land. Pentecost, also originally a harvest festival, became for Israel the celebration of God’s giving us Torah, the first five books of our Bible. Christians, of course, further reinterpreted Pentecost as that point in Time when God in Christ sent his own first gift, the Holy Spirit, so that we might no longer live for ourselves, to complete his work in the world, and bring to fulfillment the sanctification of all. For the Bible historic events in Time hold more spiritual significance than repetitive events in nature. Our God is a God of events: Deliverer from slavery, Giver of Torah, Redeemer through resurrection, Sender of the Holy Spirit - another Advocate, to be with you forever.

To help us to experience and cherish the realm of Time and Spirit God first gave us the Sabbath. Sabbath is a celebration of Time. Sabbath is Spirit in the form of time. With our bodies we belong to space, our spirits and souls aspire to the holy and to soar up to eternity. Eternity is God’s holiness of Time. Sabbath is our entry to the world of Time, Spirit and the Holy.

Holy is perhaps the most distinguished word in the Bible being representative of the majesty of the divine. The oldest piece of music and liturgy in the world sung by the six-winged seraphim before the throne of God is what we Episcopalians call the Sanctus – Holy, Holy, Holy Lord, God of power and might, heaven and earth are full of your glory, Hosanna in the Highest. And what is the very first thing made Holy in the history of the world? A Mountain? An Altar? A statue? An idol? A Temple or Tabernacle? The word “holy” is first used by the God of Creation and it is applied to time: And God blessed the seventh day and made it Holy. When the world began there was only one holiness – the holiness of time, the Sabbath. Our relationship with God, and our deepest understanding of ourselves, depends upon our entering into the realm of Time made Holy, the Sabbath. There is a realm of Time where the goal is not to have, but to be; not to own, but to give; not to control, but to share; not to subdue, but to be in accord.

Yet, Time remains our greatest challenge. We tell ourselves repeatedly over and over again, we have no time. We say this ALL the time. Even though somewhere deep inside ourselves we know that time is essential to our being since it is only in time that there can be togetherness, relationships, fellowship, community, communion, love and light. We share time with others while we try to own space. To learn to share time with others we need to enter the realm of Time.

To know God as spirit, to receive the gift of the Holy Spirit, to know who and what we are meant to be requires our entering this realm of Time. Keeping Sabbath is the Holy Habit that offers us a way to meet our greatest challenge and to enter the realm of Time. If we allow ourselves to enter the realm of Sabbath Time, we discover we are already with the God “in whom we live and move and have our being.” We enter eternity here and now. Eternity is not a place it is a time. And the time starts now for anyone who lets go of the tyranny of wanting, having and doing. It will be in such Time as Sabbath time that we learn what it means to love Jesus. “And those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them and reveal myself to them.” Amen.

“All week long we are called upon to sanctify life through employing the things of space. On the Sabbath it is given to us to share in the holiness that is in the heart of time. Even when the soul is seared, even when no prayer can come out of our tightened throats, the clean, silent rest of the Sabbath leads us to a realm of endless peace, or to the beginning of an awareness of just what eternity means. There are few ideas in the world of thought which contain so much spiritual power as the idea of Sabbath. Aeons hence, when of many of our cherished theories only shreds remain, that cosmic tapestry will continue to shine. Eternity utters a day.” – Abrahm Joshua Heschel

Saturday, May 21, 2011

Greater Things Than These!

Easter 5A 2011 – John 14:1-14
The Reverend Kirk Alan Kubicek, Mount Calvary Episcopal Church, Baltimore
It Is Our Turn Now!
It was Kurt Vonnegut who once said in a Palm Sunday sermon, "Leave it to people to look at the wrong end of a miracle every time." Much the same could be said about The Bible - it is much easier to look at the wrong end of a passage of scripture than to look at it in its greater context. And no wonder. That requires reading more than one or two lines.

Which always tend to be the lines we underline - which we underline because we like them and they seem to support our own personal view of the world. Barbara Hall, one of my New Testament professors in seminary, charged us at the end of the year to go back and study the parts of the Bible we had NOT underlined - for that would be where God wants to work with us.

If I had a nickel for every time someone asked me to explain "I am the way, the truth and the life...." I would now be a millionaire. Particularly the "no one comes to the Father except through me" part. Sounds rather exclusive, does it not? And yet, it would appear to hinge on at least a clear understanding of who "me" is. This is where Christianity gets particularly messy - trying to get a handle on just who the "me" of Jesus is.

Perhaps the simplest answer is the most obvious - obvious if you have any understanding of who the fourth gospel claims Jesus is: the Logos, or the Word of God. And the opening verses of the gospel go even further to tell anyone who is willing to pay attention that the Logos, the Word was, is and ever shall be God. Oh yes, and through this Logos, this Word, all things came to be, and without him nothing was made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it. (John 1: 1-5 RSV)

To make sure this is not taken as some sort of mistake or scribal error, plastered all over the fourth gospel is Jesus saying, "I AM...." over and over and over again: I am the bread from heaven, I am the good shepherd, I am the gate, I am the true vine, I am the resurrection, and on and on it goes, including, "I am the way, and the truth and the life."

So we are left with a tautology really. No one gets to me except through me since I AM God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Spirit. "I AM," of course, everyone remembers, is God's name. When Moses asks the burning bush for a name the bush replies, "I am who I am....tell them 'I AM' sent you."

Which leads us to the other obvious truth of the matter: Jesus was Jewish, and one has to believe never ever thought that something called "Christianity" would be the result of His time spent with us on Earth blessing and hallowing the Earth and all its inhabitants. And nearly everyone following Him, listening to Him, eating with Him, being healed by Him and so on was also Jewish - that is, in Bible parlance, they were already with "the Father" and in covenant with "the Father" since ... well let's just say for a long, long time. At least as far back as Abraham's covenant arrangement with the Almighty. At least as far back as the covenant at Mount Sinai with Moses and all those wandering Hebrew slaves.

Philip does not quite get this since he did not have our advantage of having a copy of the Gospel of John since it would be at least another 70 or 80 years or so before it was committed to writing. So, if Jesus is not the Father, why is it he makes such a fuss with Philip to point out "I am in the Father and the Father is in me. And if that doesn't work for you look at the works I do. Tell me, who else turns water into wine? Who else welcomes a Samaritan woman in broad daylight and asked her to help me? Who else restores sight to the blind, heals the sick, feeds the hungry, welcomes the stranger, sinners, tax collectors, and prostitutes? Who else has washed your feet? Who else raises people like Lazarus from the dead? Who else gives you the commandment to Love God, Love Neighbor, Love one another as I have loved you, and in your spare time love your enemies? I am who I am, Philip. I AM. Can you hear me now?"

Further, a thorough reading of the Fourth Gospel reveals that since Christ, the Word or Logos of God, is already in everyone and everything (John 1: 1-5), even though there are “sheep not of this fold,” Jesus will “bring them … So there will be one flock, one shepherd.”(John 10: 16) That is, Jesus will gather the flock from people of different “ways,” relieving us of that task, freeing us to be about the work he actually calls us to do: “the one who believes in me will also do the works that I do, and, in fact, will do greater works than these.” (John 14:13)

So Jesus is not setting up some kind of litmus test or making any sorts of claims of exclusivity. Jesus is simply placing himself and those who would dare to call themselves his followers in the context of his understanding of the religion of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses and all the Prophets: I AM. Here is what I have done, it is your turn now.

And do not forget that what I said to Nicodemus (John 3) I say to you all, God’s spirit blows where it wills. You know not where it comes from or where it is going. It can be blowing among Gentiles and Jews, Buddhists and Hindus, Muslims and Taoists, Lutherans, Roman Catholics, Presbyterians, Mormons, and even Agnostics and Atheists! Be clear that what is at stake is not who is being saved, but what salvation actually is.

Salvation is the breaking-in of the reign of God, God’s kingdom, here and now. And my Father’s kingdom can be recognized by the works themselves. It is time to stop worrying about all the rest and take Responsibility for the works themselves – and to recognize that others may also be doing the things God in Christ calls us to do. For those who take Responsibility will “also do the works that I do and, in fact, will do greater works than these, because I am going to the Father.” Greater works than these!

Is it any wonder that we try to make this 14th Chapter about something else, anything else? For isn’t it a whole lot easier to spend our time prattling on and on about who will and who will not be saved than to take responsibility for continuing and completing Christ’s work of reconciliation in the world? Isn’t it a whole lot easier to feel superior to every one else than to get down on our hands and knees and wash their feet? Isn’t it a whole lot easier to sit around and speculate on life after death than it is to bring light and life to a dark, troubled and broken world here and now?

The way, the truth and the life is revealed in all those who participate in the works Jesus does. What this 14th Chapter of John calls us to do is to recognize the way, the truth and the life in all those who participate in the works of Jesus and do greater works than these. It's our turn now!

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Truth Came As A Person

EASTER 4A - Acts 2:42-47/John 10:1-10

This Fourth Sunday of Easter is known as Good Shepherd Sunday. So all three years, A, B, and C, we read from this tenth chapter of the Fourth Gospel what can be called the Good Shepherd monologue. Although it is a complicated matter in that Jesus identifies himself as being the Good Shepherd, the Gatekeeper, and even the Gate to the sheep-fold.

And it would be the assertion of the Fourth Gospel that Jesus being the logos, God’s Word, made flesh to dwell (tent) among us, it could be argued, and indeed should be, that Jesus knew as much about being one of the sheep of God’s pasture as anyone among us.

If that is not all confusing enough (Shepherd, Gatekeeper, Gate, Sheep; chopped up over three years) try this out for size from one of the commentaries on this passage: “The passage is theological, Christological, soteriological, eschatological, ecclesiological and ethical!”

More to the point, it becomes perfectly obvious that the language employed to tell us who Jesus is is the language of metaphor. In fact, it is now argued that all language, every single word we speak is metaphor.

When one says, for instance, "flower," does that word render a complete understanding of what a flower is? Let alone our experience of flowers? And just how any one of us experiences flowers or a particular flower can be as different as night and day - provided we know what we mean by "night" and "day." When one speaks, for instance, of "the dark night of the soul" that very well can be describing an emotional and psychological state that can take place as much in the daytime as in the nighttime.

Owning up to this requires Christians to reexamine just what we mean by things like "the truth." In the fourth gospel Jesus says to Pilate, "For this I was born, and for this I have come into the world, to bear witness to the truth. Everyone who is of the truth hears my voice." (Jn 18:37) That is, the sheep of his fold hear his voice. To this Pilate makes perhaps the shrewdest of observations when he replies, "What is truth?" Yes, what indeed!

So breaking through all the metaphor, we ought to conclude that for Christians Truth came as a person - a flesh and blood man called Jesus. Not a proposition, not an argument, not a set of beliefs, but a person. For Christians the answer to the popular song of Joan Osborne, "What if God was one of us," turns out to be, "He is," for He was and is and ever shall be. Alleluia, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

Jesus is God. Jesus is man. Jesus is one of us. God, YHWH the God of Israel, the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob and Jesus, is Truth. And not one of these or any other metaphor can possibly exhaust the meaning of this basic Christian understanding.

Yet, those who take the time to enter the sheepfold through Jesus the gate, those who hear him calling them by name, those who desire to follow the good shepherd, come to know two important things about the Truth:
1) What God says to you in Jesus is this: you are forgiven. Nothing more. Nothing less. This is the message Jesus spoke and lived. There are other things that he could have said to us, and most of us are familiar with these because some forms of Christianity relay such messages as: Good News! If you are very very good, God will love you. Or, Good News! If you are very very sorry for not having been very very good, God will love you. Or, God Loves You! Now get back in line before God changes God’s mind! None of these are truly good news. Instead God says, “You are forgiven. I love you anyway, no matter what. I love you not because you are particularly good nor because you are particularly repentant nor because I am trying to bribe you or threaten you into changing. I love you because I love you.”
2) The early Christians were convinced that the Spirit has a particular care for the church, supplying the community with all it needs. She does so, however, in a peculiar way. The gifts you need she gives to someone else. The gifts you are given are meant for someone else. The Christian community can live only by the sharing and giving of these gifts. The Church at its best is a community that lives by this kind of sharing, exercising its generosity not only within its own circle, but toward outsiders as well. None of us has any higher claim on God than the claim to God’s willing forgiveness. We are all outsiders, miraculously included within the community of the gospel by God’s call.
(Points 1 & 2 are both from William Countryman’s, The Good News of Jesus, [Cowley, Boston: 1993]
pp. 3-5, 105)

The result of understanding the Truth in just this way, says the Book of the Acts of the Apostles, is a community of people who share all things in common, giving thanks that all things come from God. Further such Christian community blesses these things held in common and redistributes them as any have need. It is not easy. It is messy. It is not "fair" in the sense that we tend to think of fairness. But apparently it is God's will. Day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.

God sent Jesus to help us to get all of this. God sent Jesus to deliver this “News.” God sent Jesus to call into community people who want to live this way. People who want to know God’s love and care for them in this way.

We all want to be those people who “come in and go out.” We all want to experience that kind of freedom. We all want to experience the kind of care and protection being described by Jesus and by Luke in the Book of Acts. We all want to participate and share in this life of abundance Jesus comes to bring to us.

I believe it hinges on our Stewardship of time and especially observing Sabbath time. We are to become those people who “spend much time with one another in the Temple”. We are to become those kinds of people who read the Bible, take communion and pray together, not alone, not by ourselves, but in community, fellowship and in relationship – in relationship with God in Christ and in relationship to one another.

The Good News, sisters and brothers, is that our God wants us to experience an abundance of all of that really matters. Our God wants to take care of all of our needs. Our God has supplied us with a particular care for all of our needs by the giving and sharing of our gifts in community. When people see us living in this Way the Lord will indeed add to our number day by day! Amen!

Saturday, May 7, 2011

We Have Seen The Lord!

Easter 3A 2011/May 8 - Luke 24:13-35
We Have Seen The Lord!

Notice how much detail, time and attention Luke and the other gospels give to the Resurrection in comparison to the Crucifixion which is usually summed up in a sentence or two. And notice as well how often the resurrected Jesus is not immediately recognized – suggesting that his appearance has changed, been transformed or transfigured.

And further consider that we have no first-hand, primary documentation of what his appearance was like when he was a man walking about Galilee and Judea telling stories, healing people and feeding people. And of course no one witnessed the resurrection itself. What we have are recorded episodes of his appearing to people after the resurrection, but no record of his rising from the dead itself. All of which makes it perfectly reasonable to consider that it is not only possible but probable that Jesus can and does appear to us today. For the fact remains, Christ is Risen! The Lord is Risen indeed, Alleluia!

Evidently, according to the narrative before us, there are at least two signs associated with seeing or have seen Jesus – hearts on fire, and the breaking of bread. There very well may be other signs, but these are the two highlighted by Luke’s telling of the tale.

In April 1985 I traveled with an interfaith delegation to Munich Germany. Our President was visiting Germany and was about to honor dead Nazi SS soldiers buried in a cemetery near Bitburg. Our group was traveling to honor the lives of young people who had given their lives warning the German people what was really happening to their country both on the Russian Front and in the Concentration Camps. These young people, university students at the time, called themselves the White Rose, and most were executed for distributing pamphlets calling the German people to put a stop to the Nazi excesses. We were there to honor the survivors.

Part of our trip was to conduct a memorial service in Dachau, a concentration camp on the outskirts of Munich. One of my travel companions was Ernie Michel who had been interned in Auschwitz. As we entered Munich on the bus from the airport memories of Munich when he was young came back to him – from the train station, he said, one could see and smell the smoke from the crematories at Dachau. It would have been impossible not to know what was happening. Ernie spoke at the memorial service we held in the camp, recalling how his closest childhood friends had turned against him when they joined the Nazi Youth.

It is what happened after the memorial service, however, that I recall most vividly. We had an hour to walk about the camp where there was still a barracks standing, and a building with the crematory ovens. Then along an outside wall of the camp was a gateway into a convent where an order of nuns pray day and night as a witness to what had happened there at Dachau. I wandered in, prayed quietly in the chapel, and then went back out into the camp, which was largely an empty space. It had begun to snow. I saw a man on a bicycle coming toward me, dressed with a cape and a hat making him look like something out of a black and white movie, perhaps the priest who says mass for the nuns I thought. But looking like the courier in old war movies delivering a message to the front.

He climbed off the bike and came right over to me and began to tell his tale: he had worked with young people in the Lutheran Church, was eventually arrested and placed in Dachau where he spent the rest of the war. His story was half in English and half in German. He was trying to describe the things he saw there. He was animated and intense, arms flailing in the snow and wind. When it seemed he was finished I thanked him and started to head back to my group when he grabbed me by the arm and began speaking with great animation, now all in German, now very intense, with a determination to tell me the whole story. Was the snow swirling about us? Or, were we swirling back in time? I know not a word of German, but he kept speaking of the necessity for Peace – shalom – in the world. When he finished, he placed a pamphlet in my hand, thanked me for listening, got back on his bicycle and rode off.

The Madman of Dachau, I thought to myself. Every story has its madman. Even all these years later, he cannot escape this place. He cannot stop telling the tale, as if were he to stop all might be forgotten. As if were he to stop we might never learn the lessons we need to learn. As if were he to stop the truth might be lost forever. It has only been on further reflection and recollection of this chance meeting in the austere remnants of the first of the camps that I have concluded that this was no madman at all – this was the Risen Lord. Was not my heart burning as he told his tale? Is not his tale the same as that of the Palestinian Jew Jesus who wandered about his country telling the story of God’s people to anyone who would listen?

Jesus is alive – it is we who are often dead to his presence – or at best sleepwalking through this life, numbed by all the countless other concerns competing for our attention. Note, that it is in reading and re-reading the Hebrew Scriptures of the Old Testament that led the companions on the way to Emmaus to finally recognize the stranger. That, and when he took bread, blessed the bread, broke the bread and gave it to them, suddenly he was there, if only for a moment.

Companion. It literally means “with bread” – those who share bread. Each time we break bread we are meant to see the Risen Lord there at table with us – in the face of whoever is across the table from us – in the face of the stranger on the street, on the train, on the plane, at the mall, at the Route One Service Center, at the Second Sunday Farmers Market. Not all appearances of the Risen Lord will be as dramatic as that snowy day inside the walls of Dachau – but perhaps all of life is bounded by those walls. Perhaps all of life takes place on the cross – waiting to move from there to the empty tomb and beyond.

Some women told a tale of an empty tomb. Two companions walking to Emmaus ran back to Jerusalem to tell a tale. Someone somewhere is waiting for us to tell our tale. Know him in the breaking of the bread. He is here when our hearts burn within us. He is here. He is with you wherever you are. One day someone will see the Risen Lord in you as you tell your tale. Amen.